Australians Shrug off UN Ruling on Offending Word

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

(Editor's Note: The following article contains language that some readers may find offensive.)

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A small town in rural Australia is at the center of unaccustomed international attention, because of a nickname given to a community figure and sporting hero who died 30 years ago.

The dispute has pitted a determined Aboriginal activist against a body that administers a sports stadium in Toowoomba, a town of 90,000 in the hills of western Queensland province.

Now the United Nations has had its say, but the Toowoomba Sportsground Trust isn't budging.

In 1999, Aboriginal activist Stephen Hagan took his wife and children to a rugby league game at the Toowoomba stadium, were he was shocked to see a large sign proclaiming the name of one of the grandstands there -- the "E. S. Nigger Brown Stand."

"I was absolutely disgusted," Hagan said from Toowoomba Friday.

Not only did the sign offend him, but public announcements during the game repeatedly referred to the stand, he said, for instance telling spectators they could buy refreshments "in the Nigger Brown grandstand."

"As a strong advocate for indigenous rights, I wasn't going to subject my children to the use of that word," he said.

What began four years ago as a written appeal for a name change -- a request politely declined by the Toowoomba Sportsground Trust -- subsequently became a campaign that took Hagan through Australia's courts.

In turn, a Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, Federal Court and finally the High Court, Australia's highest, threw out his complaint of racial discrimination.

Eventually, Hagan's lawyers took the case to the U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva.

The U.N. body has now ruled on the matter, saying the Australian government should have the offending term removed, and report back on its action.

Even as Hagan celebrated his victory, however, a spokesman for federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams poured water on the idea that it would follow the ruling.

Pointing out that Australia's domestic courts had found no racial discrimination in the case, the spokesman raised doubts about the standards of U.N. processes.

"The government's serious concerns regarding the quality and standards applied by U.N. complaint bodies are a matter of public record. In the absence of real reform of the U.N. treaty body system, those concerns remain."

In Toowoomba, the Sportsground Trust held a meeting Thursday and agreed to take no action against the controversial grandstand name.

A resident who has gauged community reaction said Friday the issue was a major talking-point in the town and had polarized views. "No one's sitting on the fence on this," she said.

Speaking from the town Friday, the chairman of the Sportsground Trust, John McDonald, implied that the U.N.'s ruling was ridiculous.

Not only was Edward Stanley Brown a famous sportsman -- he played rugby league for Australia in the 1920s -- he was a town councilor, businessman and a pillar of the community, McDonald said.

He was known by the name "Nigger Brown" -- and none other -- since his childhood, and after he died in 1972 at the age of 74, his headstone bore the nickname.

Brown reportedly acquired the nickname as a lighthearted response to the fact he had an extremely fair complexion. "Nigger Brown" was also a popular brand of shoe polish.

The grandstand bore the name since the 1960s, he said, and it had caused no offense until Hagan began his campaign.

'Redneck' town

McDonald said the term had never been used in a pejorative manner against indigenous people in Australia.

Hagan disagreed, saying he had researched the matter, and found that from the late 1800s onward, the word had been used by politicians, public servants and others in reference to Aborigines.

He also said Toowoomba was a "redneck" town, pointing to a conservative, elderly population, its rural setting, and the fact its voters support "right-wing politicians ... like [Prime Minister] John Howard."

With the attorney-general's apparent lack of interest in the U.N. ruling, Hagan said he had no other legal avenues open to him if Canberra failed to act.

If that happened, he would consider lobbying African-American members of Congress on the issue, asking them to press the Administration.

Noting that Howard is due to meet President Bush at Crawford this weekend, Hagan expressed the hope that, in time, the U.S. government would put pressure on Howard to act against the offending sign.

"Howard bows to anything Bush says," he said, alluding to claims by Howard's critics that the prime minister was too quick to support the U.S. war against Iraq.

Not black and white

But there is a twist in what may otherwise seem to be a black-and-white tale.

Toowoomba's 4,000-strong Aborigine community is not supporting Hagan's campaign, a community elder, Walter McCarthy, confirmed by phone Friday.

He said a community meeting in 1999 had passed a resolution agreeing that the name of the grandstand had "nothing to do with race," and should remain in honor of a great sportsman. That resolution still stood.

Moreover, the heads of 11 regional bodies representing 10,000 Aborigines in the wider Queensland area had discussed the matter, and 10 had agreed the name should stand. The dissenting 11th representative was Hagan himself.

Asked about the communal disagreement, Hagan dismissed Aborigines whom he said were too willing to please the establishment.

"We call them coconuts - black on the outside, white on the inside."

But McCarthy said Hagan had taken up the campaign on his own, without calling for a meeting of the community or elders - the accepted protocol.

"We didn't agree with what he was doing, so we opposed it."

McCarthy, 69, said he had lived in Toowoomba for 34 years, and when he first arrived it did bear signs of a racist town. He was himself barred from hotels and other facilities because of his race.

"But you have racist white people, you have racist black people - so what? What can you do? We've learnt to accept what's here."

If Hagan took offence at the sign, he said, he should simply have found a different sports venue to go to.

"When I was barred from one hotel, I would just go to another one."

McCarthy also had some advice for the U.N.

"I think the United Nations has enough on its plate without worrying about what's happening in Toowoomba," he said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow